Jose Reyes' simultaneous return to the major leagues and the New York Mets on Tuesday passed without Reyes doing anything in particular. The team lost the game; a few fans gave the accused domestic abuser a standing ovation and more didn't. To look at the "Welcome Back" signs dotting the crowd, you'd think Reyes had returned out of some deep desire to help the Mets, rather than his suspension under Major League Baseball's Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy and the rise of Trevor Story making him a toxic redundancy in Colorado.
"We felt he deserved a second chance," general manager Sandy Alderson said. That's charitable, but sometimes charity is an excuse for irresponsible and self-serving behavior. We can assume that the Mets had their reasons, but the stain left by their choice to voluntarily reunite with a player who sent his wife to the hospital last Halloween—she suffered injuries to her thigh, neck, and wrists after Reyes grabbed her by the throat and pushed her into a sliding glass door—will remain. The Mets signed Reyes as soon as he was available, although they were under no obligation to welcome him back. The question should have been then, and remains now, who, if anyone, was clamoring for Reyes to get another chance and whether their wishes should have been gratified.
For argument's sake let's say Jose Reyes can help a lot. Let's further state that it doesn't matter what the hell he does, because whether he hits .330 or .230 the results are tainted. In signing him, the Mets may help themselves get back to the World Series, but they've also wandered into one of those questions that have been the subject of literature going back at least as far as Christopher Marlowe's take on the Faust myth: What is success worth to you, and would you make a deal with the Devil to attain it, even if it costs you your soul? In this case, read "soul" as standing in for "Whatever integrity the Mets have left."
Put in that context, signing Reyes is counterproductive regardless of on-field results. As a business, the Mets organization's job is not necessarily to win pennants or even individual ballgames, but to be entertaining. Yes, generally the shortest route to the latter is through the former, but as the Mets themselves showed back in 1962, when they were cosmically, comically terrible, there are other ways to win fans' hearts. And the Mets without Reyes were and are a good ballclub, so it's not like if they hadn't made this move you'd suddenly be back in the days of Marvelous Marv Throneberry. At least Marv was fun. There is nothing fun about any of this. It's too familiar for that.
Back in the 1920s, when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned New York Giants outfielder Benny Kauff for life after he was accused of stealing cars, he said, "Your mere presence in the lineup would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity." Translated: When fans watched Kauff, sure, some of them would be thinking, "Go team!" or "That Kauff sure is the cat's pajamas!" because, as the fans cheering Reyes at Citi Field on Tuesday night showed, there are always those who can, putting it as generously as possible, compartmentalize. Others, though, would be thinking, "Nice home run, scumbag." For Landis, the risk to the brand was reason enough to ban Kauff.
The point is not whether Kauff received fair treatment. That's still subject to argument. The point is that an entertainment stops being entertaining when it provokes deservedly negative associations. Reyes could provoke those associations, and should; as Stacey May Fowles wrote in this space last week, watching him now is something worse than an insult.
The Mets consider that a risk worth taking, and in truth, corporate baseball has rarely cared to differ; this was underscored on Tuesday when the official Major League Baseball Twitter account celebrated Reyes's return as if he'd been out sick, instead of dealing with the legal and administrative consequences of beating his wife.
With a few exceptions—Kauff, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the arbitrator-thwarted attempt to ban Steve Howe for life following repeat cocaine violations, and the current boycott of former Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia—baseball has historically bent over backwards to let even the most problematic players carry on. One particularly striking case is that of Ed Bouchee. A lefty-swinging first baseman out of Washington state, the 24-year-old played in every game in 1957, hitting .293/.394/.470 with 17 home runs. That fall, he finished second to Phillies teammate Jack Sanford in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
After the season, Bouchee went home to Spokane and got a job as a car salesman, went hunting in his spare time. He was married with one child and another on the way. Having struggled to keep his weight down, he consulted a doctor for dieting help and was diagnosed with a thyroid problem. And, on December 31, he lured two young girls, one six, the other ten, into his car, showed them "indecent pictures," and exposed himself. Details are, thankfully, scarce, but as far as we know, things stopped there.
Bouchee was convicted in a court of law but given probation and sentenced to counseling for what one psychiatrist called, "compulsive exhibitionism." Commissioner Ford Frick suspended him indefinitely, seeming seemed rather blasé about something which today would have earned Bouchee lifetime registration on a sex offender list. "I'm not going to put that boy back in active service just because the Phillies need a first baseman," he said. "On the other hand, I'm not going to persecute him just to prove I'm against sin."
Bouchee completed roughly 90 days of therapy at a Connecticut facility and applied for reinstatement. Frick acceded. "One fact stands out in the player's favor," he said. "He never laid his hand on anybody… He had been seized with a terrible compulsion, and now he is free of it."
Phillies owner Bob Carpenter's only comment was, "Ed's return will make a big difference in our club. Not only was he our best hitter but his loss depreciated our other hitters." Bouchee played through 1962, the year he was selected in the expansion draft—by the New York Mets. So completely had Bouchee been destigmatized that, later in 1958, Braves manager Fred Haney referred to left fielder Wes Covington as, "Our Bouchee."
In mid-August, 1989, Yankees outfielder Luis Polonia was arrested in his Milwaukee hotel room and charged with having sex with a 15-year-old girl. Polonia had met the girl at the ballpark and been told by one of the girl's friends she was 19. After they had sex, the girl's mother called Polonia's room and told him the girl's age. Apparently unconcerned by this new information, Polonia then had sex with her again.
Polonia later pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge (the girl's family did not want her to have to testify in a felony case), and didn't receive his 60-day sentence, of which he served only 27 days, until after the season. If he missed more than two minutes of baseball over the whole thing there's no evidence of it. On Opening Day 1990, George Vecsey of the New York Times, in a column that has to be seen to be believed, reviewed the incident and suggested that the Yankees or Yankees fans were hypocritical for praising the recently-deceased Billy Martin for kicking dirt on umpires while holding Polonia accountable for statutory rape. After glossing that ultra-specious double standard, Vecsey concludes by saying of Polonia's game-winning pinch-hit single, "He wouldn't call himself the hero yesterday, or a hero in general."
Polonia could be the hero, just as Bouchee could be the team-saving hitter and Reyes can be welcomed back to Citi Field to do whatever he's going to do, because when it comes to the game a kind of epistemic closure rules. Baseball is a self-contained system, and the game has historically been happy to leave this sort of criminality outside the bubble so long as the players can contribute to the winning effort. This applies not only to Reyes, but a litany of batterers before him such as Julio Lugo, Wilfredo Cordero, Milton Bradley, and Brett Myers. The Padres and Major League Baseball surely knew about the August 2006 case in which outfielder Brian Giles was charged with misdemeanor battery for striking his girlfriend, an incident caught on video. There was no official response of any kind.
One possible defense is that Major League Baseball and the Players Association had no agreement on domestic violence until August 2015. It was something neither side had prioritized until after the NFL's handling of the 2014 Ray Rice incident made everyone involved look like they didn't give a damn. Baseball's power structure wanted to avoid making that kind of impression and so, after years of letting attempted child molesters and rapists play on, they were now, somehow, proactive.
In the end, though, MLB is just an umbrella organization covering a federated series of ballclubs, and at any given time, any of the 30 may conclude that employing a sex offender like Josh Lueke or a shortstop who slammed his wife's head into the hood of a car (that would be Lugo) takes precedence over respect for the victims and maintaining an image of decency. Fans who support such teams, and such players, will have to satisfy themselves as to whether they are accessories after the fact in cheering for villains as if they were heroes. Maybe the Mets will even win a championship because Reyes is on the roster. A fan who cares about the Mets as an entity, and a thing worth caring about, would be justified in saying, if this is how you go about getting it, you can keep it.